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Monday, May 31, 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I don't believe it

by folkbum

From Steve Benen, about the Joe Sestak "scandal":
Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics officer under George W. Bush, took a look at the information released yesterday and told Greg Sargent that it's even clearer now that there's nothing of interest here.
The Bush administration had an ethics advisor? I don't believe it for a second.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Be careful out there

by folkbum

JS: Rep. Wood released from jail

FriTunes: The "Seriously? Seven years?" Edition

by folkbum

Indeed, seven years ago today I began this grand adventure. And what have I learned? If I want traffic, I should post about voter ID and gun control. Progress!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A tale of two maps

by folkbum

This morning's big schools story is about a study done by a Chicago-based non-profit of what Milwaukee zip codes lack enough high-performing schools for the number of students living there. The study--well, at least the newspaper article about the study--does not attempt to explain why certain zip codes are in a pickle when it comes to having enough high-performing schools; it merely says that they are. The story also comes with an interactive map, with red dots indicating failing schools. Let me put that map next to a different one that long-time readers have seen before:

(click for a larger image)

My madd grafix skillz are not quite madd enuff to get the maps aligned quite the way I want them, but you can probably figure out what's going on here. The map on the right is from this pdf report, released last year by UWM's Employment and Training Institute. The red dots on that map indicate schools where 50% or more of the students enrolled qualify for free or reduced lunch (FRL).

I will pause for a moment to let that sink in: The sea of red dots across Milwaukee in the map on the right is schools where half or more of the children are coming from homes in poverty. The MPS average, in fact, is 79%--four out of five of our students' families are poor enough to qualify them for FRL.

If you could lay these maps one on top of the other, you could see the red dots align perfectly. There is a strong correlation, one demonstrated in study after study in urban education showing that schools with high numbers of poor students perform poorly on tests of academic achievement. This is true in Milwaukee; it is true all over the country. (In the recent NAEP results for math and reading scores, the two lowest-performing urban districts were Detroit and Milwaukee, the two most segregated urban areas by race and class in the US. Coincidence?)

Though the article doesn't get specific about elementary or middle schools, it mentions four high schools by name that are either meeting state standard (MPS's King and Reagan, and an MPS charter, Veritas) or close to it (MPS's Milwaukee School of Languages); few private schools offered data to IFF. Each of these schools clock in at well below the MPS average for FRL status, between 51% (King) and 58% (Reagan)*. Not to knock those schools, which do indeed do a great job, but FRL status is not the only demographic difference between them and the rest of MPS. Those schools also enroll significantly more white students (20%-39% vs. 12% for MPS) and significantly fewer ex-ed students (7%-14% vs. 20% for MPS high schools), and both of those stats also correlate to academic achievement in the literature.

The usual This is not tos apply: This is not to excuse poor performance at other schools, this is not to suggest that MPS doesn't have room to improve, and so on. But this is as good a time as any to return to the constant refrain of this blog when writing about the challenges of educating children in Milwaukee: Where the students come from is as or more important than where they go when it comes to school. We must address the issues of endemic poverty in this community if we want to see significant, sustained improvement in our schools. To me, the IFF report strongly reinforces that view.

*All data from the 2008-2009 (most recent) school and district report cards available from the MPS portal.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From the Department of Hopeful Irony

by folkbum

I hope hope hope that James O'Keefe has to do his 100 hours of community service assisting low-income folks with housing issues.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wigderson sets up straw curd man, eats it

by folkbum

James Wigderson's latest "special guest perspective" at the MacGruber World Institute for Advancing Agendas in Spite of Facts touches on a subject near and dear to me (my emphasis):
The increase in the child tax credit is due to expire in 2011 along with the rest of the Bush tax cuts. If the Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration follow through on their threat to let the Bush tax cuts expire, middle-class taxpayers in Wisconsin and elsewhere could receive a huge tax jolt. [. . .]

Wisconsinites benefit from this tax cut more than residents in other states. Of the tax filers claiming the credit, Wisconsin filers ranked eighth in benefiting from the credit. Wisconsin filers’ average credit ranked fourteenth of all filers. Of the Wisconsinites claiming the credit, the average tax benefit was $1,335 off what they owed.

That’s a lot of cheese curds.
When you invoke the mighty curd, you had better be right in your facts, as I can hear curdspolitation six counties away and doubtless will descend upon those who befoul the curd with a righteous fury.

In Wigderson's case here, the cheese stands alone. At least, the cheese stands outside the realm of reality.

Let's start with the opening presumption. "Democrats in Congress," the son of Wigder writes, "and the Obama administration" have apparently made "threats to let the Bush tax cuts expire," and if that happens, "middle-class taxpayers" would lose their curds. But here's where Wiggy starts to fall off the cheese wheel.

The simple fact is that while "Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration" have indeed stated their intent to let some of the Bush Tax cuts sunset as originally intended (note that he doesn't direct any curdignation at the Republicans who originally scheduled that sunset!), no leading Democrat and no one in the Obama administration has suggested letting the child tax credit expire.

If you don't believe me, just google it. (I assume Wigderson opted not to run a four-second google search because it would have totally ruined his argument, scuttled his column, and cost him that sweet wingnut welfare payday.) You'll see that not only has Obama promised to extend that credit beyond 2011 (with Congress expecting to make it permanent later this summer), he has proposed doubling the credit*. The truth here is precisely the opposite of what Wigderson claims.

This is worth repeating: Wigderson's entire column, from start to finish, top to bottom, is predicated entirely on a complete disconnect from reality.

There are other little bits of disconnection from reality along the way, of course (why stop at just the thesis of your argument when you can muck up even the details?). As an example, there's this: "Democrats unhappy with the Bush tax cuts neglect to mention that only 25% of the benefits went to those making $250,000 per year or more."

Democrats "neglect to mention" this statistic because, you know, it is a stupid and misleading one. Let's assume it's true--that "only" a quarter of all the benefit of the cuts accrues to those making $250,000 or more. It would be good to know how many such filers there are. And in fact, those earning $250,000 or more account for "only" the top 10% of earners in the country. This means that they are receiving a disproportionate share of the benefit of the cuts. Other people note the disparity more clearly:
In 2006, the bottom fifth of income earners got an average tax cut of $20, or 0.3 percent of their income. In 2006, the top fifth of income earners got an average tax cut of $5,800, or 4.1 percent of income. At the very top, the average tax cut was more than 6 percent of income.

[T]he top 0.6 percent of tax filers, those with more than $500,000 in income, received nearly three-quarters of the benefits of the capital gains and dividend tax cuts in 2005.
And indeed, Widgerson's statistic is not true. According to a 2008 report of the Joint Economic Committee, "In 2007, one third of the total benefits of the tax [Bush] cuts went to the top one percent of households." (And the top 1% is those earning $350,000 and up.) Since 2007, the middle-class tax cuts have been constant while breaks on capital gains and estate taxes have continued to grow, pushing the disparity even higher. This year, with the complete absence of any kind of estate tax at all, the skew will be at its peak.

It is always, by definition, easier to argue against a straw man: State something you know is not true (Democrats are going to let the child tax credit expire!) and then amass your evidence and have at it. And here Wigderson does indeed to a nice job of explaining why Obama and the Democrats are smart to not only extend but perhaps increase the child tax credit. But a straw man is a lazy writer's strategy, and one that subjects you to ridicule and derision for not having a basic grasp on the truth. Here Wigderson has gone all-in on an argument full of rotten cheese.

*Corrected. Also, see this report on the benefit of the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest earners.

MPS, DPI, $175m

by folkbum

Since it's in the news again, I thought it would be worth revisiting what I wrote a few months ago about this:
DPI’s [John W.] Johnson is pretty clear that the state doesn’t really want to keep that money away from MPS. “Any way you cut it,” he told me, “we want to make sure that Milwaukee still gets their funds.” He explained that some of the money may be spent in Milwaukee, but directed by DPI into steps that would fulfill the corrective action plan.

“We are not leaving the ground in Milwaukee,” Johnson said, noting that Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s state superintendent, is in Milwaukee several times a month working with MPS.
There's a lot more of the backstory there, too, so feel free to click through and read the whole thing. But the takeaway is that there was never very much of a chance that these Title I funds wouldn't be spent as the feds expect them to be spent when they get allocated. Rather, DPI might be the one doing the spending instead of MPS. These are not funds that pay for teacher salaries or building maintenance; they pay for things like tutoring and parent outreach, things DPI can orchestrate just as well or (if the decision had been made the other way) better than MPS.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Further* obligatory beer-pun Leinenkugel post

by folkbum

Leinenkugel falls flat, flushes campaign down the drain.


Leinenkugel fails to crack open cold GOP.


Whiny Leinie finds tiny minds at GOP convo.

* Cf. I clearly missed my calling as a headline writer for Variety

Friday, May 21, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Next Generation Learning

by folkbum

Things are a bit slow around the blog, because I'm in Austin, TX, on the dime of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Stupski Foundation for a conference. (And yesterday I had the a fantastic lunch here with blog comments regular apc--great conversation, great achiote.) I was a bit of a last-minute addition to the Wisconsin team that's looking at how to implement the "innovation labs" funded by a significant grant awarded us (and five other states) earlier this spring. I'm here with some actually important people, including State Superintendent Tony Evers, a couple of Milwaukee-area district superintendents, a bunch of CESA1 folk, and some DPI people, too. So far, so good. We seem to get along.

The basic premise of the whole deal here is that right now education in this country happens within a 19th-century system designed to meet the needs of 19th-century students in a 19th-century economy. And that worked reasonably well for more than 100 years. But now we're dealing with 21st-century students in a 21st-century economy, and the system is no longer working reasonably well at all, at least not for great big swaths of students. Many students still navigate the system well, sure; but even many of them do so in spite of what we do to them, not because of it.

So I wanna harness the power of the blog here for a minute: Imagine if you will that you're me, and you're here, and you have the blank slate in front of you. You can design a system--or at least a school or a cluster of schools--that is not bound by the antiquated traditions of things like traditional school calendars, age-based cohorts, "Carnegie units" for graduation, and so forth. A system that is designed not around schools and schooling but learners and learning. What does it look like? What happens in your imagination when you wave your magic wand?

How did the present system work or not work for you? How is it working or not working for your children now? How should it have been, how should it be now, to meet actual learner needs as opposed to the needs of schools and teachers?

Specific ideas will be most helpful here. The broad principle of the thing--that we need to decouple the notions of learning and schooling--is well established. (And if you want to do a bit of reading, check pages 9-17 in this pdf from CCSSO.) But it's ideas for specific implementations of next-generation learning that I'm looking for.

Which is not to say that I don't have ideas or that the talented tabelful of people here with me don't either. But "crowdsourcing" is one of those 21st-century skills that often produces better results than small groups of decision-makers removed from the people affected by those decisions. Leave me a comment or shoot me an email; I'll be checking in regularly this week for all your brilliant ideas.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Well then why haven't I seen you at the meetings?

by folkbum

Gwen Moore, Wisconsin's Huggiest PoliticianTM, has a Democratic primary opponent, apparently. This stuck out to me (my emphasis):
As an example, Morel cited Rep. Moore’s belief in simply throwing more money into education, instead of trying something different. Morel noted Rep. Moore is fond of saying, “no child left a dime” when referring to how to best address the issue of education, and he added that when it comes to education there are proven ideas on how to fix what ails under-performing school districts--such as Milwaukee Public Schools--there are ideas that have worked elsewhere.
So where has Paul Morel been with all his good ideas for fixing MPS? Is he teaching somewhere? Running for school board? Going to the meetings and offering suggestions? And which "elsewhere" districts is he talking about, with their low-cost urban-education miracles, so that we can learn from them and emulate them?

I appreciate that Morel sends his kids to MPS (I assume that's what "[m]y kids attend public schools in the area" means). But does he think people like me, who work diligently inside the system and advocate for students, are just too dumb to notice all those "elsewhere" districts? Does he think the people tasked with running and overseeing the district just sit around sucking their thumbs instead of trying day in and day out to make a difference in kids' lives?

I get very tired very quickly of people who stand outside of MPS and off-handedly insist there's a simple or inexpensive fix and duh stupid us for not figuring it out. I mean, even Morel's "Education" page at his website offers a condescending call to "shift all funding to a limited set of PROVEN programs that WORK" (his italics this time) without a single specific PROVEN program mentioned.

Gwen Moore isn't a Congressional superstar like the retiring Dave Obey or--sadly--Lyin' Paul Ryan. But she understands growing up poor and minority and what it takes to overcome the challenges my students face every day. If Paul Morel really has a better answer, he needs to chip in rather than just lob shots from outside.

Monday, May 17, 2010

War on, Like, Terror and Stuff

By bert

Some situations need a word to describe them, and the English language can’t deliver the right one, so we purloin a foreign one to do the job. We’ve all heard “je ne sais quoi” applied or “schadenfraude” for example.

Here’s another situation in need of a term. It arises during some of those times when a right-wing pundit is attacking a strategic target. In these cases the attack rides on mangled facts and/or language that expose the ignorance of the pundit and so boomerangs back to self-inflict more damage on its source than on the intended recipient.

This is one example of what I am wrestling with. The famous Glenn Beck was months ago attacking the long-dead Margaret Sanger because she helped found Planned Parenthood. But Beck’s damaging zinger was that Sanger was among those in the early twentieth century who advocated eugenics, which is a reprehensible effort to improve the human race through promoting certain racial types or other characteristics and targeting those people deemed inferior.

Because bad people like the Nazis took the idea to an extreme, a cursory link between Sanger and eugenics might make her – and therefore Planned Parenthood, which is Beck’s strategic point – look bad. Poor Glenn though. He said on the air, more than once, that Sanger supported “genetics” when he meant “eugenics’.

Should we do another example of this situation without a name?

Take James T. Harris, the part-time right-wing talker on WTMJ (and now in Tucson too). Harris, who describes his product as “hip musings”, was trying during his show last Sunday to again mock Contessa Brewer of MSNBC and her comments on the failed attempt to bomb Times Square that occurred two weeks ago. Brewer said after a suspect was arrested that she had originally hoped the suspect did not have "ties to any kind of Islamic country."

Her point was that terror attacks perpetrated by Islamist radicals like those of Al Qaeda fertilize the fallacy widely held in the U.S. – which is first germinated in a widespread ignorance of the wider world -- that Muslims are murderers. And she was right.

Harris claimed on last Sunday’s show that Brewer and her statements are all wet because the suspect who was arrested was in fact “of Arab descent”.

In fact, as we all know by now, this suspect Faisal Shahzad is from Pakistan. That is a country kind of down there in South Asia, over on the other side of the old Persia from the distant Arabian peninsula. In Pakistan the national language is Urdu.

To spell it out more plainly: people from Pakistan are not correctly regarded as Arabs. They are among the millions in Africa, Asia , and the U.S. who are Muslim but not Arabs. (And many Arabs are not Muslim.)

So, as it turns out, Brewer would have been fulfilled if her wish had been that the perpetrator was not “of Arab descent”. And like Shahzad’s Nissan Pathfinder bomb, the verbal weapon that Harris attempted to inflict on Brewer instead just fizzled and made him look idiotic.

So what do you call what happened there? "Dumb-ruined attack" or "Oops, never mind moments"? I would suggest going south of the border for something better. In Mexico they have a word “pendejadas” that is a vulgarity but heard everywhere. The term describes the dumb things said by people in a way that mocks the people who said it.

Right now common usage has not watered down the crude punch of this Mexican slang enough to make it as commonplace as other foreign terms such as, say, "voilà". That’s unfortunate because your AM radio is producing pendejadas at an alarming rate.

FriTunes: Special Monday Ticket Giveaway Edition

by folkbum

I'll be spending the second half of this week at a (non-taxpayer funded) conference in Austin, TX, meaning I can't use the tickets I have to see Buddy Mondlock Saturday night at the Wisconsin Singer Songwriter Series.

First comment or email to claim 'em can have 'em.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Maybe they thought of this question already ...

by folkbum (with corrections ... because at 6 this morning my brain was SERIOUSLY misfiring)

... but Erin Richards can't report the full transcript of all 7 hours of meeting. Anyway, here's my question: How does MPS expect to furlough all of its teachers for two days at the same time as it expects to lay off 400 substitute teachers?

Actually, the smart answer to that question would be that the furloughs would be required to be taken on two of three paid holidays during teacher convention in October. (MPS teachers work on a 191-day contract: 180 teaching days, five "banking time" professional development days, one work day in August, one record day in January and another in June, two days to attend the state teacher's convention, and three holidays one holiday.)

But the thought of furloughs here actually highlights the idiocy of using the benefit-to-salary ratio as some kind of reasonable metric for determining whether teachers are compensated too much. The ratio predicted for next year (some explanation here) is 74.2%, meaning for every dollar MPS spends on salaries it will spend 74.2 cents on benefits.

However, if you cut teachers' pay by two furlough days, that benefit rate jumps to 75%, even though total compensation decreases. And you can bet your sweet bippy that if the furlough days go through, the next round of budgeting/ contract talks/ bad news will prominently feature the new and improved 75% benefit rate as the villain, even though total compensation will have fallen.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shorter George Lightbourn

by folkbum

Wisconsin should be more like Washington DC and increase per-student spending to $28,000 a year fire all those lazy teachers.

Ryan's "YouCut" pretty "YouseLess"

by folkbum

Another big, wet kiss to Paul Ryan (R-Galt's Gulch) from the daily paper this morning:
Instead of voting for your favorite "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars" contestants, you can now vote on your favorite federal spending cut - courtesy of the GOP.

House Republicans say their new "YouCut" program will give voters the chance to suggest budget-slashing proposals directly to members of Congress and see lawmakers act on their ideas. Republicans say they will try to force colleagues to vote on the cuts every week on the House floor.

"The majority of Americans would like to see less spending," said Rep. Paul Ryan, a Janesville Republican. "We want to give them the opportunity to convey that sense."
That's the same Paul Ryan, remember, who happily voted for the war in Iraq, every Iraq-funding supplemental (i.e., off-budget) spending bill, and Medicare Part D, which contained trillions in spending with no funding mechanism whatsoever.

But what's remarkable is not the naked hypocrisy--we are used to that by now from Ryan--it's that the options to vote for at this ridiculous "YouCut" site amount to, essentially, a sliver:
For example, participants in this little exercise can eliminate the Presidential Election Fund, saving $260 million over five years--but in the process making national candidates more dependent on outside fundraising. Folks can also vote to eliminate $200,000 a year in HUD grants for doctoral research on housing policy.

What's especially interesting, though, is that all of the proposals don't amount to much given the larger budget picture. Merit aside, if officials were to scrap every penny of the spending on [the] list, it would save taxpayers about $1.1 billion a year.
Remember, that's out of a budget of $4 trillion. $1.1 billion is less than the budget of the Milwaukee Public Schools alone. And at the link, Steve Benen goes on to remind us that last year, after President Obama offered a package of spending cuts that Republicans called laughable, Obama called their bluff and asked for their proposal. It came in at less than 10% of the cuts per year than the laughable Obama proposal.

It's clear that Republicans like Ryan are not actually serious about trying to govern responsibly. Stunts like "YouCut" are so dumb that even the rubes at RedState have caught on: "How stupid do they think we are?" that diarist wonders. Very, apparently.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Too Late

By Keith R. Schmitz

Apparently Marquette doesn't want on staff someone whose writings they regard as disturbing.

That horse is already out of the barn.

Shorter Dan Kenitz

by folkbum

Our conservative reality has lapped your liberal satire.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Anyone who still hasn't given comment on next year's MPS budget ...

by folkbum

This Thursday, May 13, at 7:30 the Milwaukee Board of School Directors is offering one last opportunity for public testimony. Later that night, after the public testimony, the Board committee on Strategic Planning and Budget--whose membership is the whole Board--will consider amendments, and then finally vote on a recommendation on the budget.

My prediction, though I will not stay up to see if I win, is that the final committee vote will come at around 3 AM Friday morning.

(Submitted from the audience of the committee meeting hearing public testimony tonight.)

Shorter Owen Robinson

by folkbum

Wouldn't it be great if Article X of the Wisconsin Constitution didn't exist?

Monday, May 10, 2010

RIP, Frank Frazetta

by folkbum

When I was 10, I knew one "real" artist's name. It was Frazetta's.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Arbitrate This

by folkbum

As I mentioned yesterday, this morning's editorial is calling for the contract between the Milwaukee Public Schools and its union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, to go to arbitration.

Though later they say something conciliatory like "let's realize that everything must be on the table," this and the paper's recent history make it clear that the only thing they give a hoot about is one change that will ultimately be useless and that ignores the larger context of MPS's budget problems.

Arbitration, the editorialists write, "is the best option unless the Milwaukee School Board and teachers union agree on moving employees into a less-expensive health care option." To clarify, MPS teachers and most other employees have a choice between two different insurance plans, an HMO and PPO. What's available in these two plans is public, as the MTEA has posted it on their website (.pdf). The PPO is a better deal, mostly because of somewhat higher limits and more choice of doctors, though out-of-pocket costs are higher.

This is all frustrating, because it is pretty clear that the editorial board does not read its own reporting. Start with the report Amy Hetzner filed just last year on area school district salary and compensation. Hetzner's analysis found that average MPS salaries were very low for the region. Its fringe benefit package, though high, brought the full compensation package for MPS to merely middle of the road. To pretend that these benefits are the root of the problem, or are the most important factor in creating the current MPS budget distress, is ridiculous. If MPS's compensation package were truly the bane that the editorial board believes, then area school districts that compensate their teachers better would be falling apart far worse than MPS--and clearly, they are not. (Not to suggest that all local school districts are looking at rosy pictures next year; they are not. But they are not looking at challenges on a scale that MPS is.)

In addition, the low average salary identified by Hetzner contributes significantly to the shocking statistic that the editorializers perseverate upon: "The district pays 74.2 cents in benefits of every dollar it pays its employees in salary," they note. First, they do not clarify that MPS calculates this number using not just negotiated benefits--health insurance, for example--but adding on Social Security and Medicare taxes, state-mandated pension deductions, and other items that are not contractually negotiated. Second, remember your fractions: The low average salary--which would be the denominator, the bottom number--means that any increase in the benefit level--which would be the numerator, the top number--is amplified artificially.

This is true because MPS teachers, like teachers all over the state of Wisconsin, have opted to trade salary increases for mere maintenance of health insurance. Indeed, a quick check of national statistics bears this out. Wisconsin currently ranks 20th in average salary and 49th in starting salary. That site notes the 10-year increase, and Wisconsin ranks 43rd--meaning 42 states increased teachers' salaries more in the last ten years than we did. Going back to 1990, note that the average Wisconsin salary has increase by a mere $13,000; our neighbors in Minnesota saw their salaries double. Illinois and Michigan and even Iowa all beat us in salary increases. Spencer Coggs, when I spoke to him last week, put it to me this way, and I think it makes sense: Wisconsin teachers--and Milwaukee teachers, in particular--guessed correctly over the last 20 years that what would be valuable is not salary but health insurance. And people now want to punish us for getting it right.

In Milwaukee, this is particularly galling: We already have the most challenging teaching assignment in the metro area, with just about the lowest average salary--particularly apparent for teachers who have the most experience and the highest levels of training--and live in the most expensive health care market in the midwest. The one good thing we have left going for us, an ability to negotiate that market with peace of mind, is the target.

And here's the kicker: Changing the health plan from PPO to HMO isn't going to save much money at all: The district offered an estimate a while ago, noted by the editorial board here: "An estimated $47 million in health care savings could spare 400 teaching jobs." Their math is right on how much teachers cost, but the "estimated" savings is nowhere near accurate. The way MPS arrived at the number was to take the average cost of an employee on the HMO and subtract that from the average cost of an employee on the PPO, multiplied by the number of employees on the PPO. Problem is, the average cost of an employee on the HMO will shoot right up if all of us are on that plan. Why? Because the costs are based on actual utilization, and employees who choose the PPO do so generally because they have higher-cost or more challenging needs. Those health issues will not magically go away under the HMO, and MPS will still find itself paying for that care. In addition, the HMO requires no annual deductible or co-insurance or cop-pays.

The real fault lies in the fact that the cost of meeting the needs of MPS's students--and students around the state--are increasing for everyone faster than the rate at which the state or the federal government or even local taxpayers are prepared to meet. (More on that tomorrow.) To take this uncomfortable reality and use it as a bludgeon against the people on the front lines and doing the hard work of teaching the state's most difficult students is an offense against common sense and decency. Especially when the facts line up against the editorial board's ridiculous position.

Happy Mothers' Day, 2010 style

by folkbum

Hope all the mothers out there are getting their brunch on as I type this.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

This is new

by folkbum

Bright orange post card in the mail today from the Labor Relations section of MPS asking for volunteers to be laid off. Horrible punctuation*, worse implications.

Further, I'll have more on this tomorrow, but I'll just note that the subhead to the editorial, "The teachers union and the Milwaukee School Board are still in negotiation over a new two-year contract," is only half true. The union has been waiting patiently for the district to come to the table more than once a month or less over the last two years.

* The first sentence, for example, "The proposed 2010-2011 budget, reduces the total number of teaching positions in the District."

Friday, May 07, 2010


by folkbum

A preview of this weekend's entertainments:

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Shorter* Charlie Sykes on Rep. Obey

by bert
David Obey "is a horse's ass" and his retirement proves that everything I ever said about government since January, 2009 is true.

*format stolen from the Sadly, No blog.

These goalposts won't move much further, fellas

by folkbum

"Moving the goalposts" is a pretty clever shorthand way of making a real point about human nature: We often compromise what we really want or believe in order to accommodate a reality that makes our ideals impossible. "This house will be spotless by the time my mother gets here" is replaced by "The downstairs will be spotless and Mom won't need to go upstairs" is replaced by "If all my various piles are neat, that's good enough, because Mom raised me and knows I've always been a bit of a--oh, crap, the doorbell."

The problem is that people in a position to advocate policy and spend your tax dollars like to move the goalposts, too, and it affects much more than just your mother's incredible disappointment in you. It means "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" becomes "We're spreading democracy" becomes "We fight them there so we don't have to fight them here" and so on. Eleventy billion dollars later, we're down to, "If we leave, it will fall apart; they can't even run an election." Democracy inaction!

Closer to home, we've seen the goalposts move pretty steadily on the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program. It began, of course, as a way to help struggling poor and minority students achieve at the same levels as the wealthy, white students whose families could afford private school. But as independent analyses have shown, voucher students on the whole aren't yet--20 years into the program--outpacing their Milwaukee Public School peers. So the goalposts have moved over the years, settling most recently at "Voucher schools do equivalent work at a lower price." As we have discussed here previously, though, this is true only because voucher schools don't have the same layers of state and federal bureaucracy to deal with and virtually ignore Milwaukee's special needs population. And the original goal? Long surrendered to reality. Trouble is, voucher advocates are still content to spend your money to support their pet project and prop up a religious school system that would have been bankrupt long ago absent your tax dollars.

Charles Murray--yes, that Charles Murray--had an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday along these same lines. He notes the mediocre test results and then picks up the goalposts:
So let’s not try to explain [the test results] away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another? This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers--measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

It should come as no surprise. We’ve known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.
First, let us first pause to consider the irony of Charles Freaking Murray downplaying the importance of a test score.

And then let us step back and remember why we're even talking about test scores in the first place: Public schools, unlike private schools, are veritable fonts of data. And among the data--in fact, some would even call them the most important data--are the scores on the tests that measure whether students are meeting or exceeding the state's academic standards. Now, believe me, I do not disagree here; I have always maintained that standardized tests scores are among the worst means to judge students, teachers, and schools. But it is those very test scores that have spurred proponents of vouchers not just here in Milwaukee but across the country to push for every conceivable means of yanking tax dollars and students out of public schools. And now that test scores, not just of Milwaukee's voucher students but of charter schools across the nation, have shown that those public-school alternatives are not, in fact, the answer to schools' ills, the proponents are scrambling. Murray:
[A]ll I can say is thank heavens for the Milwaukee results. Here’s why: If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason that school choice is a good idea. Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise.

Here’s an illustration. The day after the Milwaukee results were released, I learned that parents in the Maryland county where I live are trying to start a charter school that will offer a highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline. This would give parents a choice radically different from the progressive curriculum used in the county’s other public schools.

I suppose that test scores might prove that such a charter school is “better” than ordinary public schools, if the test were filled with questions about things like gerunds and subjunctive clauses, the three most important events of 1776, and what Occam’s razor means. But those subjects aren’t covered by standardized reading and math tests. For this reason, I fully expect that students at such a charter school would do little better on Maryland’s standardized tests than comparably smart students in the ordinary public schools.
So much goalpost movement ... starting with a radical redefinition of why charter schools are necessary. It has nothing to do with the original theory that charters could provide innovative programs to better serve the needs of hard to reach students and more nimbly respond to challenging situations. A bunch of white suburbanite kids taking "a highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition" is hardly challenging or innovative. And if choice and charter schools don't get good tests scores, it must be because the tests are biased against the schools' gerund-heavy curricula!

In the end, the goalposts are left standing at the weakest point they've ever been. It's no longer about improving the educational lot of the neediest and furthest behind children. Instead, Murray says, the "real reason" we need choice and charters is to placate know-it-all parents. What a world!

See also Barbara O'Brien.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

I have a very bad feeling about this

by folkbum

I almost missed Star Wars day .... May the fourth be with you!

UPDATE, 5/5: See what happened? I take full responsibility for this, after being so late. I knew I had a bad feeling about something.

"I have always been a worker bee, and I let the work speak for itself."

by folkbum

I had the pleasure the other day of sitting down for an hour with State Senator Spencer Coggs. He's running for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor.

Coggs is or should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of state government, having served in the legislature for the last 27 years. And that was my first question for him: What is it that he thinks he can do as LG that he can't do as a state senator? His answer, that a LG should act as a liaison between the governor and the legislature, makes sense, and Coggs rattled off example after example of the way current-governor Jim Doyle has failed to communicate with the legislature. This includes the issue of a mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools, which Doyle mentioned almost off-handedly to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board before ever broaching it with the leggies who would have to support it to make it a reality. Coggs says his years in the legislature and relationships with the people there make him a natural liaison.

We spent most of our time, actually, talking about MPS, since that's my paycheck and he was one of the forces behind a bill that would have prevented a mayoral takeover but brought in the mayor as a partner. The bill Coggs wrote with Rep. Tamara Grigsby would have created, in theory, a situation with "all hands on deck," as he termed it. He felt that as long as there was a pro-active mayor--and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett certainly has seemed committed to helping MPS--why not create a partnership with the board? But installing Tom Barrett as head of MPS was a bad idea, Coggs said, given that Barrett wasn't planning to stick around.

And speaking of exactly that, Milwaukee's Barrett as the Dem candidate for governor, I asked Coggs if he thought there was any credibility to the notion that the rest of the state would not vote for an all-Milwaukee (i.e., Barrett-Coggs) ticket. (My alderman, Tony Zielinski, dropped out of the LG race claiming that Barrett's people strong-armed him with exactly that line.) The question, according to Coggs, was not whether an all-Milwaukee ticket would be a problem outstate (and he said in fact that when he talks to people around the state, it never comes up), but rather whether Barrett without someone like Coggs can win the Democratic base.

Two things, Coggs said, about that. One, of course, is that the likely Republican nominee (although, sheesh, that side of the campaign is getting weird), Scott Walker, is from Barrett's home turf, and every southeast Wisconsin vote will be bitterly contested. But two is that, because of the MPS takeover thing and the bumbling way Doyle approached the matter, Barrett lost a lot of credibility with minority and progressive voters. Coggs, as an African American and one of the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus, could bring those voters back, he said. He also touted his personal experience leading GOTV efforts in places like Dane, Rock, and Brown counties, as well as in southeast Wisconsin.

A few other topics of discussion included the state funding formula for schools (it has never been sufficient for Milwaukee, Coggs said, and is marred by political favors) and why MPS--and Milwaukee in general--gets the short end of the stick (Milwaukee is not politically popular, he said, and Milwaukee has been excluded from leadership). This is something, he went on, that will come back on the state. "To not fund Milwaukee properly," he said, "is not good karma or good politics." And, supporting the top of the ticket, Coggs made it clear that one of Barrett's goals in this campaign is to show that we aren't living here in the state of Milwaukee and competing with the State of Wisconsin, but rather that we're one state and need to support each other.

The one part of the conversation that disappointed me was about health care, since Coggs has a health-care background. I noted that health care costs are a significant part of what's eating school budgets, and wondered what the state could be doing to address the expensive nature of health care and benefits. Aside from bragging about helping to start BadgerCare, and noting that health-insurance pooling is a possibility for public employee unions, there wasn't much.

But talking about health care did lead to a great story, the one that gives both the title of the post and a reasonable impression of the kind of person Spencer Coggs is. You may recall that a few years back the Isaac Coggs Health Center was in trouble. The name is not a coincidence, Isaac was Spencer's uncle. Though Spencer had nothing to do withe the center--it wasn't even in his Assembly district--and though everyone warned him about wading into the $5m financial morass that the place had become, Coggs realized that 25,000 people used the center for their health care needs, people who would have forgone care or found their way to the ER instead. He knew you couldn't close something like that. So he went in. He won funding from the feds, he found a strong CEO, and he made the place work again despite the risk to his own career.

"People"--and by people, he meant mostly moderate Democrats who only think about the next election--"people need to stop playing it safe," he said. "When you have political capital, invest it. Make it work for you." And that seems to be Coggs's attitude toward his current role as legislator and his potential future role as LG. He is tired of people who don't want to do the work of leading.

With the field for LG not yet set, and not having had this chance with any of the other candidates, I am not prepared today to offer any endorsements or guidance for Dem primary voters yet. But I will say this: We could do a lot worse than Spencer Coggs.

MPS budget hearings tonight, Thursday, next Tuesday

by folkbum

Thanks to Erin for reminding me: MPS budget hearings are scheduled for the next week. For background, my take on the superintendent's budget, and my Compass story on specific cuts affecting specific schools. The schedule (all hearings at central office):

Tuesday, May 4, 6:30 PM
Thursday, May 6, 6:30 PM
Tuesday, May 11, 7:30 PM

Monday, May 03, 2010

More Paul Ryan deception on health care

Or, it's a day that ends in -y and Paul Ryan opened his mouth

by folkbum

About the only thing nice I can say about Paul Ryan's repeated insistence on writing about the health care bill just passed is that, bless him, he is one of the last of us who insist on spelling health care as two words, the way FSM intended it to be.

Aside from that, there is basically nothing to recommend in his latest op-ed fantasy. His starting point is the recently released Health and Human Services/ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services report. Thankfully, Ryan does not repeat the fiction--one that ricocheted around the righty blogs last week--that the Obama administration buried the report. Such a claim is embarrassing to contemplate spreading, seeing as how there is nothing in the report that wasn't already widely known. The Congressional Budget Office told us all in its scoring of the bill back in March that total health care spending with the bill passed would be greater than total health care spending without the bill being passed. The CMS report says the same thing, and Ryan is hyperventilating like it's something new to panic about. Here's Ryan:
The health care law will increase national health expenditures by an additional $311 billion above current projections. This estimate refutes the Majority’s promise that the legislation would bend the cost curve down, not up.
Ryan is being misleadingly cynical in the most charitable interpretation--outright lying if I'm being less kind. For starters, this is pretty simple math: The Affordable Care Act adds about 34 million more people to the ranks of the insured, and according to both the CBO and CMS, total health care spending will increase about 1%. Got that? We're adding 12% of the population to the rolls at a cost of not 12% more, or even 8% more, but just 1% more. And that is total spending including the private sector, not merely government spending. Ezra Klein, please:
And that 1 percent is actually 1 percent and falling: When the legislation is fully implemented in 2016, the spending increase will be 2 percent. But cost controls kick in over those years and bring it down to 1 percent. Assuming the trend holds, the second decade will see national health expenditures fall below what spending would've been if the bill hadn't passed. So that's the bottom line of the report: We're covering 34 million people and come 2019, spending is expected to be one percentage point--and falling--above what it would've been if we'd done nothing.
Or, as actual actuary Jim Lynch (via) noted the other day: "I really don’t see where anyone can claim the actuaries’ report sheds new light on the health care legislation passed this year. And what is new is slightly favorable to Obamacare, not the other way around." In other words, the CMS report that Paul Ryan is whining about, no matter how you slice it, is good news for reform advocates, and bad news for naysayers like Ryan.

(The graph comes from a different Ezra Klein post, but I hope you can see how ridiculous Ryan's whining about increased costs actually is. Click for a bigger version, or follow that link.)

Here's lyin' Paul Ryan a couple paragraphs later:
Approximately 14 million people will be dropped from employer coverage as “…the per-worker penalties assessed on nonparticipating employers are relative low compared to prevailing health insurance costs. As a result, the penalties would not be a substantial deterrent to dropping or forgoing coverage.”
Now, if you're an average Racine Journal Times reader who comes across this line, what do you think it means? Do you think it means that the ranks of the uninsured will swell by 14 million people? Or at least that 14 million fewer people will be getting health insurance through their jobs than without the bill having been passed? That's a reasonable answer, based on what Paul Ryan gave you here. But remember, this is Paul Ryan we're talking about, so he's lying to you again. Let me quote some more from the CMS study, the same paragraph even, that Ryan quotes from (page 7 for those of you following along at home--my emphasis):
By 2019, an estimated 13 million workers and family members would become newly covered as a result of additional employers offering health coverage, a greater proportion of workers enrolling in employer plans, and an extension of dependent coverage up to age 26. However, a number of workers who currently have employer coverage would likely become enrolled in the expanded Medicaid program or receive subsidized coverage through the Exchanges. For example, some smaller employers would be inclined to terminate their existing coverage, and companies with low average salaries might find it to their—and their employees’—advantage to end their plans, thereby allowing their workers to qualify for heavily subsidized coverage through the Exchanges. Somewhat similarly, many part-time workers could obtain coverage more inexpensively through the Exchanges or by enrolling in the expanded Medicaid program. Finally, as noted previously, the per-worker penalties assessed on nonparticipating employers are very low compared to prevailing health insurance costs. As a result, the penalties would not be a significant deterrent to dropping or forgoing coverage. We estimate that such actions would collectively reduce the number of people with employer-sponsored health coverage by about 17 million, or somewhat more than the number newly covered through existing and new employer plans under the PPACA. As indicated in table 2, the total number of persons with employer coverage in 2019 is estimated to be 4 million lower under the reform package than under current law.
So when Ryan wants you to think the ACA means 14 million fewer people with employer-paid insurance, he's actually off by a full ten million people.

(And I am not even going to bother going into how wrong Ryan is on Medicare Advantage--if he wants to use the CBO to bash the ACA he should be using the CBO to bash Medicare Advantage, too. That's only fair, right?)

I have said it before and I will say it again now: I do not understand how someone who is so brazen, so brash, so sloppy in his representation of the facts continues to be lauded and taken seriously by people, particularly the media. How is it that the Journal Times can let all of this go without a fact check or a rebuttal by someone more firmly rooted in reality. Paul Ryan is unashamedly lying to his constituents, over and over and over again.

FriTunes: Special Monday Happy Birthday Edition

by folkbum

Happy Birthday, Pete.

Frum gives Ryan too much credit, ignores hypocrisy

by folkbum

A lot of liberals these days like David Frum, former loyal Bushie who has made a good living lately being dismayed at how the party that elected George W. Bush, squandered a surplus, tripled the debt, bungled two wars, violated civil liberties, tortured and killed enemies real and suspected, gutted environmental protections, let BP get away with choosing not to install backup shut-off valves on its Gulf oil rigs though they're commonly required elsewhere around the world, and so on, has "suddenly" gone around the bend.

And no doubt Frum lives on this side of the border between reality and the fantasyland of the Tea Partiers and the Palnistas and the other residents of GlennBeckistan. But that doesn't make him any more correct when, as he did yesterday, he lauds a fraud like Wisconsin's Paul Ryan:
The only politician in Washington honest enough to bring forth an honest budget is Rep. Paul Ryan, his alternative budget would balance the budget without any taxes but it requires the privatization of Social Security, eliminating the tax deduction companies get for providing health insurance (which would mean employees health benefits would be treated as income) and it basically turns Medicare into a voucher system for those over 65 to go purchase health insurance in the marketplace. Perhaps when Rep. Paul Ryan supplants Sarah Palin as the star and face of the Tea Party movement, old fashion fiscal conservatives will take them more seriously.
Frum's first error is to call Ryan's roadmap honest. It isn't; independent analyses note that Ryan's prediction of a balanced budget--a prediction he places so far into the future both he and I and probably you, unless you're reading this sometime in the 2060s, will be long dead--is not actually even accurate!

Frum further claims the Roadmap is "without any taxes," which given the larger context I think actually means "without any new taxes." This, too, is false, as Ryan's Roadmap pretty clearly calls for a consumption tax and for taxing health care benefits provided by employers. When you run the numbers, as I have noted previously, that means that all of us but the top 10% (who benefit from cuts under Ryan's plan) will see their tax bills go up.

The privatization of Social Security is also a budget buster (the cost to privatize it is greater than the cost to just make it fully solvent), and the medicare vouchers are set so low your grandmother will have to choose between medical care and food.

But that's not all. Immediately following the paragraph above, Frum goes off on Medicare Part D:
Where were the mass protests in 2004 when a Republican Congress passed Medicare Part D? This bill will cost all taxpayers over the next ten years over $1.2 trillion dollars and was paid for by debt; neither tax increases nor spending cuts were issued to offset the new Medicare program. Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker has called it “the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s.”
Yes. Where were the protests? In fact, where was Frum-anointed fiscal "star" Paul "Roadmap" Ryan? Why, Ryan was right there on the floor of the US House of Representatives voting for Medicare Part D!

So Frum fails this basic test. Yes, Frum may recognize the economic and historical illiteracy of a lot of the Tea Party, and he has a legitimate gripe that a movement whose spokespeople include Victoria Jackson has taken over from the movement whose spokespeople used to include, say, Tom DeLay. But if Frum is going to lionize an opportunistic, lying Randroid hypocrite like Paul Ryan, he's no better than the rest of them.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Community Meeting on MPS, School Budgets

by folkbum

(click for a larger version)

If the graphic isn't clear, MPS parents have organized a meeting Saturday, May 8, from 9 to 10:30 AM at the MPS central office on Vliet. Some members of the Board will undoubtedly be there, though this meeting is not specifically about this year's MPS budget, it sounds like.

Relatedly: My cover story for the Bay View Compass (below the fold, natch) on cuts in BV-area schools is online now. The contest? Pick the paragraph that was written by my editor; it's not a bad paragraph, but not at all in my style. An official no-prize to anyone who spots it.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Pretend Bewilderment

by bert

I thought this oil spill thing was one of the prominent stories this week. But, like when Tom Barrett's altercation was national news, I'm not seeing anything about this current event on the blog by Charlie Sykes. What gives?